I found out about Notre Dame burning from a text stream conversation I share with some friends. I had been off my phone for a few hours because I was at work and then running some errands, so I didn’t see the exclamation, “Holy shit! Notre Dame!” And because I’m me, my first thought was the University in Indiana. Something to do with basketball? Wasn’t the Final Four over, I thought. I opened up my news app and saw the photos of the majestic cathedral in Paris and I was instantly sick to my stomach. I couldn’t watch the video. I wasn’t in a place where I had permission to cry, but hell, I really wanted to.
You see, I’ve been to Notre Dame. It was a couple decades ago, but the entire trip had been one where I had quite a few experiences that I now understand were close interactions with deity, and particularly the deity that would come to be my patron. Given how pivotal that period in my life was to the person I am today, that I should feel some kind of way to watch one of the way stations on that journey go up in flames is understandable. Many of my friends who are medieval history enthusiasts also had feelings of devastation.
It’s also understandable that many pagans, being part of a group that has suffered epically at the hands of the Christian church, and many of whom have personally experienced unspeakable abuse from people who claim Christianity as their faith, should also feel some kind of way about the burning of an iconic and storied symbol of that organization. A way that is decidedly hostile and unsympathetic to the Cathedral.
Thanks to a global media that can beam images all over the earth nearly instantaneously, we can as a planet have the collective experience of watching an iconic building burn. That doesn’t mean that we will all share the same feelings about the experience.
That’s not how feelings work.
Feelings, or emotions, are a tricky substance. Poorly understood and powerful, they can quickly overwhelm a person. They have an almost liquid ability to burst out of whatever container one tries to place them in. Our feelings are not obedient. We cannot will ourselves to feel what we don’t. Nor can we bid a feeling we’re having to simply go away.
I mentioned earlier being in a place where I didn’t have permission to cry as I watched the cathedral burn. Most of the problems that feelings create in our lives happen at the intersection between what we feel and what we do. This is why being human is so damn hard. From an early age we are placed in situations where we’re having powerful feelings, but because of the social context we are in, we cannot act in a way that is consistent with how we feel.
Toddlers go through this a lot, and it’s why the twos are considered so terrible. Being two years old is a colossally frustrating thing. You want things. You want them BAD. The emotion of desire in a two year old is on overdrive. And despite the intensity of your desire, you are still only two. You can barely walk, barely talk, and you are really small. Everything you want is out of reach, or difficult to manage on your own, and the big people in your life who are the gatekeepers to it are constantly telling you “no.” It’s frustrating as hell. And so it’s no wonder that at the drop of a hat, you’re wailing and crying. You are feeling epically powerless nearly all the time. The worst part is that no one understands how hard this is. And because your language skills are underdeveloped, you have no way to tell them.
And because you’re two, you haven’t figured out yet that the middle of the frozen foods section in the Harris Teeter isn’t an acceptable place to lose control and start screaming because you’re frustrated. You don’t even have enough control of yourself to keep your pants dry on a regular basis, so this shouldn’t really come as a shock to anyone. And yet, all the adults around you seem genuinely confused and perturbed that you’re expressing your feelings. I mean, what else are you supposed to with them? You’re two years old, for chrissakes. You have none of the tools yet to manage strong emotions. Those skills come later. You haven’t learned them yet. And so your too big for you emotions burst forth, loudly, and inconveniently.
Thankfully, we do not stay two forever. We do eventually get socialized, and learn where it is acceptable to have strong emotions, and where it isn’t.
Because as we get bigger, the experiences we encounter get more intense, and so do the emotions they bring up. And try as we might, we never actually get to the place where we can fully contain them. They will burst out at the most inconvenient times, and the struggle will always be there — how do I honor the emotions that are rising up in me without perturbing and confusing everyone around me?
The fact is, sometimes the problem isn’t you or your emotions, it’s that the social context itself is messed up. We go to funerals and we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead. But what if the dead person was an unmitigated asshole to you? A friend is in a relationship with a boyfriend you know is abusive, and she announces her engagement to you. How do you express your feelings of fear for her, and your disappointment that she is digging in deeper with someone who is harming her? Some situational social expectations strain your best efforts at not making your feelings the issue in a place where they are not the priority. And some emotions are too important to squelch.
But it’s also true that society is often inhospitable to feelings as a general matter. For some, feelings are never the priority. The whole idea of controlling feelings for other people’s comfort and convenience very easily becomes stifling. In instances where people are marginalized, the dominant social group uses the idea of “not taking things personally,” and “being nice” as a way to maintain the status quo by invalidating justified feelings of anger at being marginalized. Particularly in the case of boys, we devalue the act of having feelings at all, by telling them to “man up” if they express sadness or hurt. And don’t get me started with the number of internet trolls who complain that people who take offense at their insensitivity are using their feelings to “persecute them for just being logical.” (No, dude, you just want people to think it’s okay for you to be an asshole to your fellow humans.). We tend to operate with a presumption that displaying or talking about feelings is evidence of weakness. It’s not. People who have the ability to honor and express feeling are incredibly strong in every way.
On the flip side, you have people who use their feelings as a cudgel to beat people with. Narcissists are really good at this, using their feelings as a way to manipulate people into behaving the way they want. They throw toddler-worthy temper tantrums when the people around them are not bending over backwards to accommodate their emotional state. When people express strong feelings in public situations, sometimes it’s not because they have lost the power to control their actions in light of their emotions. Rather, it’s a conscious or subconscious bid to influence other people’s actions, by seizing control of the attention and the vibe of the room, or a means to work injury on someone without having to accept blame. “I can’t help it,” they say, “that’s just how I feel about it.”
There is nothing easy about feelings, which may be why we never fully master them. And that’s actually a good thing. Our feelings are integral to our humanity. Staying in touch with them is vital to our mental and physical health and a prerequisite for having the capacity for connection and intimacy. But it’s also true that letting them roil about unrestrained can damage connection and relationships just as quickly. Where’s the line? How do you draw that balance between acknowledging feelings and inappropriately indulging them?
What I tell my son is this: He’s allowed to have his feelings, in all their glory. They are HiS feelings, and they are what they are. Telling him not to have them is not only intrusive, it’s futile. He’s not responsible for his feelings. He is, however, responsible for what he does. And making his feelings someone else’s problem is not okay. If he wants to let out some strong emotions, he should do that. But not if it’s going to disrupt other people’s peace and quiet. He can go to his room and slam the door and punch the pillows all he wants if he’s angry. He can’t do it in the family room while I’m reading. He can be sad and disappointed that he didn’t get a good grade. Crying in the teacher’s office hoping she’ll change the grade is not okay. Letting his cousin know that it hurts him when he calls my son a certain name and asking him to stop is important. Hitting him because he’s mad is not acceptable.
Policing people’s feelings, telling them what they “ought” to feel about a thing, or how intensely they should feel it, is ultimately disrespectful. It’s an attempt to supplant their emotions with yours, and no one owes you that kind of influence. Moreover, as a practical matter you couldn’t do it even if they are willing to. You have every right to comment on what people DO about their feelings. Being angry about something is fine. Delivering a public hate filled rant towards the object of your anger probably isn’t. You may be experiencing a sense of vindication while everyone else is grieving. That feeling is what it is. It doesn’t give you the right to publicly gloat or piss on someone else’s pain.
Ultimately, people are going to feel what they feel, and that’s exactly as it should be. There ‘s no point in getting wrapped up in someone else’s feelings unless they specifically ask you to be. Because feelings will ultimately change, and do so rapidly. Most of us cycle through half a dozen feelings before breakfast, and nothing comes of them. Only feelings that have risen to the point of action become fair game for unsolicited engagement. And even then, the pragmatics of the situation dictate that you take on the action, not the feeling underlying it.
As it says in Proverbs, “each man knows his own bitterness, and no one else can share his joy.” In the end, you can only feel what you feel. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.